Trenchtown in the 'Trose
Maybe there are taller peaks ahead in the career of Ryan Scroggins, the former keyboardist in Los Skarnales and now the leader of his own band, the Trenchtown Texans. Or maybe the best has already come and gone. Scroggins knows one thing — nothing can take away his most prized musical memory.
A few years ago, Los Skarnales was opening for chart-topping Jamaican reggae legends Third World. There, Scroggins got the best compliment he'd ever gotten in his life.
"I almost started crying," he says, savoring the moment.
During the sound check, a few members of Third World came over to watch. "I guess we were playing one of Skarnales's more reggae-type songs," says Scroggins. "Anyway, they were watchin' me, and I was thinking, 'What the fuck are they lookin' at? They're freakin' me out.' After the sound check, we were hanging out around back and one of them came up to me and said, 'Ya mon. You play organ?' And I said yeah, and he said, 'You listen to reggae music. You know reggae music.' And I was like, What? And they told me they could tell I was into the Upsetters and the Skatalites. They said, 'We're Jamaican. We can tell. We know that stuff.'"
And indeed Scroggins does, too. There's a certain authenticity present in the organ-driven sounds of Trenchtown Texas, his band's debut CD, seldom replicated in today's ska.
A few months ago in these pages, we called that disc a "moonlit, warm-breeze-bathed, rum-punch-soaked, weed-pungent hurricane party" of a record, and along with his band's acclaimed live shows, the Trenchtown Texans have already clawed their way into the national ska scene, only a year after their inception in the aftermath of the implosion of Los Skarnales.
Scroggins looks back on his band's first year with satisfaction. In the last 12 months, Scroggins says, his band has toured both coasts, signed to Megalith Records, released an album and had tracks selected for two compilation records. Megalith will soon unleash Trenchtown Texas on Europe with a pre-Christmas release that Scroggins hopes will spark interest enough for an overseas tour next year.
We're sitting in the garage apartment in Darkest Montrose that Scroggins shares with his girlfriend, four sleek, mischievous cats and about ten Scroggins-built terrariums, each of which houses exotic frogs from Africa, Asia and South America, salamanders, and, in one case, a baby alligator snapping turtle that is palm-sized now but will grow to be a 200-pound behemoth. (Scroggins, a self-taught amateur herpetologist, studies biology in his free time and volunteers some of his off-hours at the zoo's creepy-crawly department.)
As an LP by Lee "Scratch" Perry's old band the Upsetters spins on a turntable, Scroggins puffs an elongated pipe that would do Gandalf the Grey proud. The fragrant apartment lives up to its street address — by happy coincidence, Scroggins's house is number 420.
A native of Fort Worth, Scroggins moved to the Houston area with his family when he was about 14, first settling in Texas City. A couple of years later, he dropped out of high school and apprenticed himself to a tattoo artist in Galveston. Scroggins took up the same trade on lower Westheimer while still in his teens, and it remains his "day" job today — he's been at Amazing Tattoo for the last eight years, and he really enjoys his work.
"Growing up, I was always into drawing and music," he says. "My parents figured I would be either an artist or a musician. Turned out it was both."
Scroggins had early musical flirtations with saxophone and guitar. On the latter instrument, he played some of his first shows at the Axiom, towards the end of that club's mid-'90s heyday, mainly in "bands that nobody would remember," he says.
Scroggins ended his active role in the music scene as the '90s came to a close, devoting the next four or five years to attaining mastery of tattooing. In the meantime, his musical tastes were evolving out of punk and toward ska and reggae. Some of his old punk friends gave him some shit about it, not that Scroggins cared. "They were like, 'Fuck you, dude. You're one of them hippie/ska/beatnik dorks now!' I just said, 'Whatever, motherfucker. You like the Clash, and ska is just a natural progression from that."
About seven years ago, he decided to reboot his musical career and learn a new instrument while he was at it. "The instrument that always stuck out to me in ska and reggae was the organ," he says. "I took two or three piano lessons, bought an organ, then I joined Secret Agent 8."
Comprised in large part of Scroggins's old school friends from Texas City, Secret Agent 8 enjoyed some regional success, but wound up serving mainly as a sort of farm club for internationally renowned locals Los Skarnales. Felipe Galvan and company raided Secret Agent 8's lineup more than once, with Scroggins being one of the defecting Secret Agents. But it took a while...
"I tried out for Skarnales the first time in about 2002," Scroggins remembers. "And I sucked. I had just started learning how to play. They told me that they didn't vote unanimously to have me join, so I said, 'That's cool. I'll join Secret Agent 8 instead."
Scroggins stayed with that band for about a year. "There were so many people in the band and we were so young — I think a few of the guys weren't really into it, you know? Meanwhile, Felipe saw that I was getting better and then he asked me to join Skarnales."
Scroggins was fresh off a breakup with an ex-girlfriend, and Skarnales had a full slate of upcoming shows. "I was like, 'Fuck yeah.' I joined the band and right after that [former 30footFALL guitarist] Chris LaForge joined. And then we learned about 30 or 40 songs in two weeks."
There followed two years of touring along both coasts and a few shows in Monterrey and Mexico City. In 2006, Skarnales suddenly imploded in the aftermath of a band meeting gone awry, and Scroggins quickly formed the Trenchtown Texans in order to fulfill the gigs Skarnales already had on their slate — a West Coast tour with East Coast ska lords the Hub City Stompers.
Scroggins enlisted several ex-Skarnales, including drummer Patrick "Beans" Wheeler and guitarist Jeremy Peña, as well as Skarnales associate Nathan Smith, a saxophonist. Guitarist Thomas Dowda, a buddy of Wheeler's, was drafted in to play bass, and his development has come as a pleasant surprise to Scroggins, going from reggae/ska neophyte to "badass" seemingly overnight.
The Trenchtown Texans were not certain they would continue as a band beyond fulfilling the Skarnales dates, but the success of those dates took care of that. "We got such a big buzz, there was shit all over the Internet about us," Scroggins says. "So we just figured, 'Fuck it, let's book some more shows.'"
"Especially with me, Jeremy and Beans, we were still so on the go from Skarnales, we just pretended like Skarnales never broke up," he adds. "We are just playing different songs now. We didn't want to slow down. We just wanted to play this music and throw it in people's face and let them know that we were still playing music if they want to hear it."
Scroggins says that those people are out there, in scattered pockets all over America. "We have a lot of friends on both coasts, so I know that once we get there, we're fine," he says. "It's in between that kills us."
Ska has had such a cyclical ride. It first seeped into the Anglo-American consciousness in the late '60s, mainly via Jamaicans living in England. Roughly ten years later, ska erupted in England again, as bands like the Specials, the Selecter and the Beat brought their Two Tone sound to the then-declining, multiethnic West Midlands metropolis of Birmingham. Ten years after that, third-wave ska came kicking and screaming out of Southern California.
For Scroggins, each wave of ska has been a step down from the previous one. To him, the original Jamaican stuff was best, while the Two Tone stuff ranges from tolerable to pretty good. As for the SoCal stuff of the pop-punk-tinged bands that ruled the charts in the 1990s — he thinks it's not even really ska.
"When a lot of that shit came out, kids that were like 14 or 15 and just getting into music, they still think that's what ska is," Scroggins says. "People ask me what kind of band I'm in and I don't say ska, because if you do, they are like, 'Oh, like No Doubt? Goldfinger?'"
Like as not, those kids have never even heard of Scroggins's true heroes, bands like the Upsetters and people like Jackie Mittoo, the founding keyboardist in the Skatalites. And many don't know that there is a small but growing traditional ska movement in America, one of the thousand little scenes in this fractured, relentlessly niched culture.
Scroggins doesn't believe that ignorance to be much of a hindrance for his band. "If people like mellow, positive stuff, and they hear us, they like us," he says. "If people come in for a tattoo and they start talking about music, I'll play my CD and they will usually buy it from me right there.
"Ska's not angry music," he continues. "Even when it is angry, it sounds happy. There's a song by the Pioneers called 'Time Hard,' and lyricwise it's the most depressing song ever: 'Every day, things are getting worse.' But musically it's the happiest song. My buddy [former Skarnales bassist] Nick [Gaitan] says what he likes about real reggae and ska is that 'You can walk to it.' And Beans, my drummer, he'll get drunk, and he says, 'Man, I love this music because it has a heartbeat.'"
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